I’m an eLearning specialist, so part of my job is to provide advice and workshops on improving online learning.  We often refer to “How Course Web Design Impacts Student Engagement” by Dian Schaufhausser and the infographic that inspired the article during these consults and workshops.  The article is a summary of a study of hundreds of courses using a particular Learning Management System (Canvas).  Although I often use this as reference material for online course design consults, it should also apply for course sites supporting face-to-face classes.  So, when teaching a medium sized first year course this year, I decided to apply my own medicine and try to create a simple and deep design to my course site.  From the article:

A simple, deep design might lay out the course directly on the home page with a lot of different activities organized to give the student a clear indication about how to move through them. A given week’s lessons page might include hyperlinks to each activity the student is supposed to do, and there’s no question about what comes next.

So, I divided my course up by themes (usually one per week), and set out with a template for each unit tab seen below in cartoon fashion:

Weekly course template

Each week featured:

  •  unit banner (created in Canva – a go-to tool for quick graphic design).
  • an intro video that allows me to revisit misconceptions, make announcements about course logistics, and get students prime for the weekly activities.
  • a text overview for the week for quick skimming (1-2 sentences).
  • learning outcomes for the week
  • a “To Do This Week” checklist so students can tick off what they’ve done. Includes recommended and required activities;
  • guiding questions for readings. Most students are not prepared to read strategically, and commonly plow through readings with little retention or engagement.  I would identify that this is a skill we should be teaching our students in first year, but there are many study skills that are worth learning in first year and this one didn’t totally make the cut.  So, I introduced guided questions in hopes that I could help students read strategically
  • lecture materials including copies of the slides, videos shown in class that can be viewed right on the page, and helpful supplementary links.

The aim: simple and deep design

“I know where to go next…”

… is what I hope students will say to themselves (or sure, out loud).  Part of the simple and deep design is that students will know where to go each week.  Students can find their labs and all prep materials in the lab tab, then instructions and submission pages for each of their photo portfolio submissions.   The most recent lecture tab is at the top, and it’s not displayed until the week of the course.  So, in the first week, when they are just learning the ropes, all they see is one lecture: 1 – introducing the anthrome landscape.

Each week there are different deadlines and moving parts to keep track of. Yes, students should read the syllabus and enter time into their own calendar, but they also then have to take that information and navigate our course sites (that is, 5 different syllabi and 5 different course sites).  We as the professors also know from experience (that we can share) that although the lab is due this week and you should be completing readings for the next one, there’s also a photo reflection due next week that you should think about, plus, last week many people got the question about spectral energy wrong so you should revisit that while it’s fresh.  For this reason, I am really happy with my shift from announcements during lecture to announcements (and overview of the week ahead) in a video on the course page.  It helped me keep tabs on all the moving parts of the course, and it means that I don’t have to answer emails from students who missed class about “What’s happening this week”.  It also means that if I review something tricky, students can view it again and again.

Another component of the simple and deep design is a trackable checklist so students can actually monitor their progress on weekly activities, as well as see items the instructor recommends they do, which can be helpful for strategizing course work time (e.g., I must hand in the lab, I should also do the readings, and it would be nice to get a head start on reviewing for the exam!)

See a quick tour of one of the lecture pages below. It may not be as cute as the template but I think for a first time using OWL to really support learning in a face-to-face class it worked fairly well.

So… did it help students?

The evidence I have is limited, but a single question around the online learning environment on the questionnaires on courses and teaching for this course indicates that students found the OWL site helpful in facilitating their understanding. A student also mentioned the OWL site in the comments section of the questionnaire.

The course instructor’s use of the online environment facilitated my understanding of the course material (hover over graph for details).


The owl site for this course was amazing. The amount of effort that Prof. Hundey put into the course not just during class time is unparalleled with my other professors. She had weekly introducing videos, checklist to help keep students on track, pre reading questions, supplementary pre readings from outside sources, diagrams, youtube videos, and on top of that moderated a piazza page for students to ask questions.